When we think of cults, we think of being recruited into them. It’s easy to forget some people are born into them like my guest today, Frances Peters, who was born and raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses before leaving in 2004 with her husband and two children. As soon as she realized how controlling and harmful the group was, she decided to leave. Since then, she’s been researching the workings of undue influence and what people can do to (re)gain their identity. She experienced how challenging it is to become a thriver instead of remaining a victim of institutionalized undue influence.
Peters lives in Holland and is a self-employed coach/counselor with her practice called Free Choice Recovery. Since 2010 she counsels former cult members and individuals who experienced harmful control from a person or group. She supports these individuals on their journey to autonomy. Her special interest is in identity development and supporting the born-in former members to take back control. She is also the co-founder of Stronger After, which provides online free support for former members of authoritarian controlling groups.
Born Into a Cult
When Peters was just an infant, her mother became a Jehovah’s Witness, though her father never did, and this caused a fracture within the family. Peters talks about her father not wanting her mother to go to the meetings, but she did so and this meant Peters was living in two worlds. Her mother took her to the meetings and at 15 she was baptized, though the Jehovah’s Witnesses deny they baptize anyone under the age of 18, one of the many lies they tell.
Peters discusses with us her mother’s difficulty with the Dutch language as her mother is English, this was another way for the group to maintain control because it provided her mother with a social network given that some of the members spoke English.
In addition to her mother, both of her sisters were in the cult as well, which meant they had a built-in support system for staying within the bounds of the cult. Peters discusses how they were trying to be “good girls,” devoted to the religion and preaching as much as they could. Preaching was a necessity because of the instilled belief that she “would have blood on my hands if I wouldn’t preach as much as I could.” Preaching became a duty to avoid this.
When Peters was 13, her parents separated and this gave the Jehovah’s Witnesses another way to control her mother because the elders stepped in under the guise of support, which allowed her mother to become even more attached to the group
. Peters talks about how her brothers, much like her father, did not become Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the girls in the family did.
The doctrine of the cult was harsh and included believing every other church was evil and blood transfusions were prohibited. The latter led to the children being consistently told to be very careful so as not to get into an accident or situation that might require one. They were also led to believe in Armageddon and told the world was ending several times, which meant they didn’t need to do things like go to college because the world as they knew it would soon be over and they would live eternal life.
Divorcing the Cult
Peters married her husband at the age of 20, they knew each other from the time they were young children having grown up in the same congregation. His parents were more fanatical than other devoted members.
Because Peters was born into the cult, she did not have an identity or value system to return to when she left. A lot of her friends and family members were also members of the authoritarian group, which meant losing everyone when she left. Still, Peters had the courage and fortitude to leave the group, though it was a complicated process.
After 11 years of marriage, she and her husband had their first child, which changed the way she viewed the world. She discusses previously working only to get by and have enough for food and basics so she and her husband could devote the majority of their time to preaching. However, once her daughter and then son were born, she found herself having to explain the concepts of the religion and in hearing herself do so, she began to realize it sounded ridiculous.
From the Mouths of Babes
Her daughter asked straightforward questions and while trying to answer those, Peters began to understand how unexplainable these concepts were. Her husband was coming to the same conclusions after considering what they would do if one of their children needed a blood transfusion. He found himself unable to endorse the beliefs he grew up with.
Peters recalls the first time her husband raised doubts with her about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, discussing his findings with her about the organization having NGOs, which is not allowed. Upon finding out they lied about having those, it was a starting point for questioning other things. Peters remembers feeling as though it couldn’t be true, but her husband was able to prove it, and that began the journey to freedom for their family.
We talk about being disfellowshipped, which is a feature of a lot of extreme cults, though it’s often called other things depending on the cult. Jehovah’s Witnesses will exclude a person completely, not allowing them to talk with their friends and family members who are still in the group because they believe them to be dangerous. This includes parents, siblings, and children.
These cults need to be able to control their members and information control as seen in the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control is one way to do it. Questioning and thinking for one’s self is not allowed, people must stay within the confines of the belief system. They cannot allow nonbelievers or questioners to influence the members as this would destroy their ability to control them. The consequences of disfellowshipping are enormous as people lose their entire social network, including their family members, and are cast out alone in a world that is very different from the one they were told about within the cult.
When Peters was beginning to make her way out, though was not yet disfellowshipped, she read my book, Combating Mind Control, which was an eye-opener for her to begin understanding that she was in a cult. At that time, she was not speaking up because she feared the loss of family connections for her children. Once she did speak up, she was disfellowshipped.
Gaps in Professional and Personal Knowledge
At this time, she started to realize there was a gap in the knowledge base of professionals around growing up in cults and how harmful this can be to identity development. Peters talks about being in her 40s, but still being emotionally immature and having difficulty making hard choices. She talks about the identity crisis this caused her, but also how spending time with people outside of the cult helped her grow, stating “I was just flabbergasted about all the things that were there.”
Peters started participating in forums with ex-members and reading a lot. She attended the Academy of Coaching and Counseling to gain the counseling skills she felt she needed to help others. She went abroad and studied at the International Cultic Studies Association as well as attended the Second Generation Adults (SGA)Workshop. She wanted to understand what happens to people who grow up in these cults and made use of metaphors to assist others. She discusses, for example, an elephant trained in a camp to do work with methods of abuse and control to get the elephant to submit. Elephants are strong, but with this kind of cruel training, they can be made to submit to humans and be afraid of them, much as cult members are trained. Growing up in this environment with nothing else to compare it to creates a lot of difficulty in understanding it’s possible to get out and live a different, healthy life.
Peters talks about compassion being key for the ex-member to move through the shame and pain, it’s also key for those who work with or know someone who is processing the emotions, pain, and trauma of being in a cult and exiting it. I launched a new nine-hour online course for anyone who wants a deep dive into issues related to recovering from undue influence in all forms. While this course is designed for clinicians, everyone can benefit.